Mourinho had authorised the world-record £89.5 million signing of the midfielder after he had won four straight Serie A titles with the Bianconeri, yet the Portuguese manager just couldn’t seem to get Pogba playing as he had in Italy.
“I watched him a lot at Juventus and the man who controlled the game was Andrea Pirlo,” Paul Scholes told BT Sport in one of a number of analyses on Pogba’s ailing United form. “Pogba’s being asked to do that at Manchester United but it’s not what he does best. He should be affecting the game further forward for me, he has to be more involved.”
But what Pogba also had at Juventus besides Pirlo pulling the strings was Arturo Vidal running his blood to water on the right of the midfield three in order that the Frenchman could play in a more advanced, penetrative role on the left and therefore affect the game in the final third more often.
It is a luxury he was never afforded under Mourinho, but when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer returned to Old Trafford in December as caretaker manager he immediately identified the need to liberate Pogba as the key to opening up his United side.
And it is Ander Herrera who has been the key element in Pogba’s recent renaissance.
Whereas Mourinho asked a lot of Pogba in a defensive sense whether used in a 4-2-3-1 or in the more preferable 4-3-3, Solskjaer has provided Herrera with the task of fulfilling the kind of duties that Vidal was so good at back at the Allianz Stadium.
The Spaniard has added a renewed steel and greater legs alongside Nemanja Matic, allowing the Serbian to play at his own pace and Pogba to advance whenever necessary. The overall ethic of Solskjaer’s United to attack with width and energy has been a marked improvement on what Mourinho’s side had to offer, but their ability to control the engine room and give Pogba the chance to surge has been vital in making that happen.
Mourinho was far too paranoid and particular to allow United to break out of a fixed structure for the most part, while Solskjaer has reverted them to a more typically Man Utd approach, abandoning the shackles and giving a new edge to their attack.
Without Herrera there would be so much less of the control in United’s midfield that has allowed them to give their forward players the room in which to revel. What he offers is a work-rate unmatched elsewhere in United’s ranks. His rate of assists per game of 0.27 compares favourably with Georginio Wijnaldum, Fernandinho and N’Golo Kante this season, while he has got through far more work off the ball than any of that trio too, with 3.36 tackles per 90 minutes and 2.83 interceptions.
He has also been the instigator of many of the counter-attacks from which United have caused havoc, thinking nothing of looking up and immediately hitting a long, low pass to a team-mate to throw his side into the attacking phase.
All of this has helped to ensure that Herrera has been the ballast which was previously missing from United’s midfield. The former Athletic Bilbao man started only 33 of 80 games between Matic arriving in the summer of 2017 and Mourinho being booted out of the door last December, and when he was called upon he was never used as a tool to release Pogba.
Now he is being used for exactly that purpose and both Pogba and United are thriving as a result. The Frenchman has netted five goals and assisted five more in eight matches, with another near-miss leading to Anthony Martial’s FA Cup clincher against Arsenal last time out, and the Reds are faultless in that period.
Solskjaer has hit on to a winner in the engine room, and while the forward trio of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard have hoarded a lot of the attention, there should be no underestimating the impact Herrera has had.
United’s board obviously have a rather big decision to make between now and the end of the season when considering whether Solskjaer has what it takes to take them back to where they belong in the longer term. But another – surely far more straight-forward – quandary relates to Herrera’s expiring contract.On current form it would be crazy not to offer the fan favourite a new deal. There are not many players in this world with the work-rate, desire, stamina and passing ability of Arturo Vidal, but Ander Herrera is proving to be one of them.